The Old Gods

A poem I wrote some time ago when I still wrote poems occasionally has now been published. You can find it in a more dignified setting at the Wrath-Bearing Tree, or read it below.

Broken window and Manhattan skyline, NY, 2014
From Tom Grill’s New York Monochrome series

The Old Gods (No. 9, 2003)


The towers bloomed up in the dark

Like nails scrolling from dead fingers

While around them a languid curtain fell

In drifts of violet gas that settled on the roofs

All of us honeymooners and mourners

Aware of ourselves as objects in a landscape

That held above the chipped skyline

Bristling in the greater darkness

A dream of New York City



We must have lived inside that dreaming

No more able to escape than words can flee the page

Our old Gods who gave us a magic by which to love



In those days, we could take the D from 59th to 125th in one stop

Or all the way out to Coney Island

Not for the 24 hour pool room where the Russians played snooker a floor above the street

I did not go there with you

One night I had you with nothing between us

You were sat up on a jetty rock

I had the tide at my back

You in the shadow of Astroland

Lit by moon and amusement, a castaway





Two Ways of Glaring at a Pigeon

  1. The fashions of your age should look ridiculous to your descendants but ours have ripened prematurely.
  2. There is good reason for wicked things to offer pleasure but we are led astray by the trivial.

(And new articles coming soon…)
“The Meaning of Joe Rogan”
“The Church of Jordan Peterson, Saint of Secular Apostles in the Benighted Holy Order of Self-Mastered Darwinian Christianists.”



On Normalizing Nazis and Trayvon Martin

What is this now about normalizing Nazis?

If anything, it wasn’t a tendency to normalize nazis that got us into this mess but a failure to grapple with the appeal of fascism. The past few years have seen “a collapse of moral and political imagination,” as my co-author Angela Nagle and I recently wrote. Witness how otherwise intelligent adults routinely blamed signs of incipient fascism on “trolls,” a kind of phantasm from children’s stories.

True, the New York Times ran an article about a Nazi full of basic errors and strange omissions but that’s not what caused the public outcry of recent days. The controversy arose over a moral question—whether, in the interest of opposing Nazism, individual Nazis should be normalized. It’s the moral question, I think, that transformed the article into the kind of metastory that pops up every few months and gives people a chance to argue, others a license to jump on their platforms, opinionate, spit and howl.

And it was really this, the moral question, that Times’ reporter Richard Fausset was addressing in his hastily published followup, which begins by admitting, “there is a hole at the heart of my story,” and ends by asking “what makes a man start fires?” An apology of sorts for failing to find, in the depths of the seemingly normal Ohio Nazi William Anthony Hovater—Tony Hovattaver to the Times’, though they inexplicably fail to mention that it’s a nickname—the secret to what made him so horrifically abnormal. At the same time, Fausset suggests that this is the fundamental question and that it may be unanswerable.

A strong temptation always exists to see large social events through the lens of individual psychology because the view is like gazing in a mirror, even when it’s appalling it flatters our vanity and sense of scale. But this is a mistake.

There was a tendency to overweigh individual psychology in the normalization debate—both the psychology of the article’s subject and its impact on potential readers—but a few exceptions appeared. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie offered a new wrinkle by inverting the standard charge.

The real problem with the Times piece, Bouie argued, is not in seeing a Nazi as normal but failing to see him as an insignificant offshoot of the ruling political normalcy .

The sensational nature of Hovater’s identification with Nazi Germany obscures the ordinariness of his racism. White supremacy is a hegemonic ideology in the United States. It exists everywhere, in varying forms, ranging from passive beliefs in black racial inferiority to the extremist ideology we see in groups like the League of the South.

Here the systemic is everything. Yet Bouie’s view is not only totalizing, it is also parochial. There is not only no individual to be concerned with but no network. And as he appears to view Hovater’s extremism as a merely lurid variation on the ruling ideology there is no effort to analyze its content or to differentiate between forms of far-right politics. Perhaps this explains why Bouie hardly mentions Hovater’s anti-Semitism, which comes up several times in the original article, because he considers it, like the possible European influences on Hovater’s thought or the particularities of his social status and group affiliation, inconsequential in the totalizing context of American white supremacism.

That Hovater’s racism belongs to a political lineage of American racial terrorism is not in doubt, but is that really all one needs to know about him?

If White supremacism is a hegemonic ideology, what does Bouie make of fascism? It never comes up in his article. This too is a mistake.

“Fascism,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1975, “also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community, the repudiation of the intellect, the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).”

Was Hovater, once the drummer in a touring heavy metal band, attracted to neo-Nazism by something as abstract and un-American as “the ideal of life as art?” Was he seeking a community, and if he was, would it normalize him to acknowledge this and try to tease out the implications?  

Here we approach both what is most valuable in Fausset’s article and its fundamental flaws.

There is a process of radicalization among young American men who are drawn into the orbit of the far right. Some of them, particularly the most disturbed, become violent white nationalists and neo Nazis; others merely poison their communities and whatever remains of the democratic social spaces around them. But they do not spring fully formed from their own brows. They arrive at their extremism step by step.

On this point, the Times’ article tells us something valuable, albeit in passing. In describing the steps in Hovater’s radicalization it provides evidence for one of the central premises in an essay I wrote a few years ago: that the killing of Trayvon Martin was an inflection point in American politics and a key driver of ongoing radicalization. Fausset writes:

In 2012, Mr. Hovater was incensed by the media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, believing the story had been distorted to make a villain of George Zimmerman, the white man who shot the black teenager.

Hovater’s wife recounts a similar experience:

Ms. Hovater found herself on social media “questioning the official story,” taking Mr. Zimmerman’s side and finding herself blocked by some of her friends. Today, she says, she and Mr. Hovater are “pretty lined up” politically.

Reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing and the media’s perceived bias against the man who killed him, George Zimmerman, comes up repeatedly when members of the alt right describe their radicalization. An early, influential alt-right Twitter account, the pseudonymous ‘Ricky Vaughn,’ gave an interview in January 2016 to Richard Spencer for his website Radix. In it, Vaughn describes his drift from first supporting Ron Paul to developing an interest in anti-feminist politics, “and from there…”:  

It really went to — after the Trayvon Martin thing, when I figured out how they were lying about this guy, George Zimmerman, the whole time. You ask yourself why were they lying about him, why were they trying to make this racial narrative? And you start to get into the criticisms of anti-racism, equalism, all those sorts of things.

And then there is Dylann Roof, who is serving life without parole for killing nine black parishioners while they prayed inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“To understand Dylann Roof’s thinking, he tells us, we have to go back to 2012. To Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. That was the moment, Roof writes in his manifesto, when he was reborn as a white nationalist.” Those are the opening lines of the essay I mentioned earlier, written in June 2015 about Roof’s path to murder and his immersion in “a reactionary, defiantly anti-social politics [that] has been emerging for the last decade,” which I described, before the term alt right had come into common usage, as “juvenile fascism and virulent racism.”

My contention at the time was that the killing of Trayvon Martin provided the “single event that sparked the current period of social unrest…” as it “reverberated in the Internet’s ideological echo chambers, the former inspiring the nascent protest movement that reemerged in Ferguson, the latter inspiring a right-wing counter-movement online.”

In another feature common to alt-right biographies, Fausset finds that Hovater started off in Libertarian politics—as did “Ricky Vaughn,” and a number of other high-profile members of the alt right. And of course, Hovater mentions that old standby 4Chan.

He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he deadpanned).

It’s enough to make you think there may be patterns here worth closer study.

As you’d expect, what’s most valuable in Fausset’s article is its reporting. But the common criticism that it failed to provide context is justified. (I thought so after reading it, but the journalists who compiled a list of basic facts that the story either omitted or got wrong drive that point home.) It was not necessary to list all the crimes for which Hovater’s ideology is responsible in order to write about him, but the over-reliance on Hovater’s own testimony is a serious shortcoming. It leads directly into what Fausset himself describes as the hole at the heart of his story—the existential imponderables of Hovater’s psyche.

So, why does a man start fires? It depends. A castaway has his reasons and an arsonist has his. You learn something by looking at where he starts them, whether he lights them alone or as part of a group, in an act of frenzy or ritual sacrifice. And so on.  

In isolation, the self is a fathomless echo. But that was for Proust to explore. A man is not a literary text. He is not only who he says he is; the narrator is necessary but unreliable, reliable but insufficient.

Fascism is not a question of the self in isolation. It is a form of mass politics, as is white supremacism for that matter. The focus on individual intent as a means to understand the political is intensely vulnerable to deception and self-deception, tricks of language and the basic fluidity of belief. We have followed this path into a cul de sac—behold the ironic nazi—it is time to move on.

A final word on writing and language. Clichés corrupt. They have corrupted my writing when I’ve relied on them and they share some of the blame for what went wrong here, as these lines illustrate:

In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux.

This substitutes the appearance of description for the work of describing something to the reader. Hardly a ripple is different than no ripple. How much of a ripple? We don’t know, only that in Ohio, with its topography and chain restaurants, Hovater’s presence can make hardly one—it might make none at all, but it can.

Much of the scorn directed at Fausset’s article—including from journalists who’ve published their own bad writing about the alt right but took the first chance to club a peer—was not criticism but vain shouting and insipid prattle. This is because it occurred on Twitter and that is what Twitter produces. In a similar way the Times article was doomed by the way its format closely followed the conventions of the general interest profile. This is what made it so ripe for parody. This genre is useful for creating news filler and maintaining celebrity access through inoffensive coverage. It is not well suited to grappling with the appeal of fascism or capturing the place and impact of American Nazis in a Midwest American towns.


Dissent vs American Affairs

On the debate between American Affairs and Dissent

and Summing up Some Feelings about the State of the World

I’ll try to explain what bothered me so much about the debate last Friday night between the editors of Dissent and American Affairs. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the evening but you can read a good one here or watch the whole thing if you’re interested. What I’m after here is why I found the event such a frustrating disappointment.

First a brief tour of what led up to the night in question.

For ten years I’ve been telling friends that I felt myself moving to the left and, at the same time, moving to the right. It was another way of saying that the center had become hollow. To stay there, I would have had to lie and pretend that wasn’t the case.

That was a distressing realization for someone like myself who came of age in late-nineties-end-of-history-individualism and was more interested in ideas about art and the experiences of my own life than in ideology. I came to politics reluctantly only after returning from Iraq in 2007. My sense that something had gone fundamentally wrong in the republic, if not in the modern world, intensified in the aftermath of the financial crash. Clearly a lot of other people felt the same way, more with every year that passes.

Our current crisis is to a considerable degree a delayed reaction to these two events. The disasters of Iraq and the spiralling wars on terror, and the public spectacle of the financial system being rewarded exorbitantly for its failures.

Wars, global markets and democracy itself in the modern era, we were conditioned to understand, had evolved beyond quaint concepts like cause and effect, reason and guilt. Elite opinion rose above such petty considerations and condensed in vaporous clouds that rained down edicts. True, you can’t build much on a cloud, but building is such a pre-knowledge economy thing anyway, and given the success of bubble economies why should clouds be a problem? There are advantages to being in a cloud, a lofty perch and a chance to piss on people without even having to tell them it’s raining.

At the same time: Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, sovereign citizens, Gamergate, campus protests. A series of networked insurgencies revolting against interlocked establishments. The old political parties and categories — Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal — proved themselves incapable of preventing even the worst and became increasingly irrelevant and contemptuous of their own membership. And they went out of their way to prove this, attempting to engineer a choice in 2016 between a Clinton and a Bush.

It wasn’t just politics either. Symbols and signifiers had been getting jumbled for years before they went full kaleidoscopic. Progressives turned against miscegenation, which they called cultural appropriation and a form of oppression. The cultural Left became enforcers of rectitude while elements on the right developed an aesthetics of transgression.

Michael Lind had a good line in an essay last year about the ongoing political realignment: “Like an ebb tide that reveals a reshaped coastline, the culture war remade the parties’ membership and is now receding. In its absence, we are able to see a transformed political landscape.”

With all that in mind, the brief tour of the last decade, you might think I’d be just the sort of person to inhabit Lind’s new landscape. No real party loyalty, disenchanted with the status quo, open to new ideas and new definitions. And If you accepted that premise you might think I’m a model audience member for the debate last week between the dissidents of the left and right, who’d been mapping that new coastline long before the tide pulled back and revealed it to someone like me.

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 1.51.36 PM

I knew and admired work by people on both sides of the debate. Tim Shenk, a young face on the ‘Old Left’ Dissent team, along with editor Sarah Leonard, caught my attention a few years ago with an excellent piece in The Nation on the post-crash Marxist resurgence. I’ve read American Affairs, represented that night by editors Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin, since the New Right journal launched. Skeptically, I’ll admit, given their alignment with Trump. I lumped them in with the band of conservative gnostics who tried to recast the president’s buffoonery as a cryptic form of strength, his dissoluteness as an occult virtue. Still, I’ve read them with real interest. Their contributing editor is the talented writer James Poulos whom I like and respect. And they’ve run some important work, putting aside for a moment our disagreements, including Pappin’s own essay in the inaugural issue on The Anxieties of Conservatisman original and insightful account of the populist swells of 2016 and the election of Donald Trump.

So I could note that the beer was cheap enough and the entertainment was free (thanks Verso) and leave it at that. But I’d rather give the panelists the same sort of respect I’d like in their place, which is to take their ideas seriously without imputing more motive than absolutely necessary to explain our disagreements. I think the people on stage that night, or at least the political tendencies they represent, are going to become more important in the near future. It’s because I think their ideas have power, because what they came to argue about is vitally important, that I want to lay out my disagreements.

On the night in question, I’d thrown my back out doing something stupid only an hour before the thing kicked off. I treated it with gin and some old pain pills I’d stored away. So it’s fair to say I showed up with issues of my own but I’m not sure it would have gone any different without the back pain.

Still, maybe it’s best to start with the description given by First Things’ literary editor Matthew Schmitz, who was in the audience. A self-described “anti-abortion socialist Roman Catholic,” he recorded these impressions:

Not even these relatively radical and adventurous thinkers are able to escape the shirts-and-skins dynamic of American politics. Leonard begins her remarks by saying, “It’s not polite to call someone else’s journal a crypto-white nationalist project, but…” Shenk insists that whatever agreements Dissent and American Affairs might have on political economy, “the culture wars aren’t over.” Neither bothers to say where and why they disagree with Krein and Pappin on economics, something that might help clarify the cultural differences as well.

In response to this broadside, Krein disavows any interest in a racially defined nationalism. For him, the nation is a matter of adoption rather than birth.This is not exactly Nazism made new. If anything, Krein’s nationalism sounds too modest and procedural to compete with the moral urgencies and market demands of globalism.

As the scrum goes on, it becomes clear that along with a difference in opinion there is a difference in tone. Krein and Pappin seem to be trying on new ideas, searching out unmapped terrain—more doubters of the old religion than founders of a new sect. Shenk and Leonard, meanwhile, speak with the serenity of well-trained Thomists.

Schmitz’s account gives you the problem in a nutshell. The left pandered while the right was coy. I have my feelings about pandering being a mortal sin already on the record. On coyness, I’d say it may have its place but it’s sure as hell not at a debate.

The effect of it all was that if you took the speakers literally, you’d have come away with a distorted picture of reality and, I’d wager, an inaccurate impression of their own views. For much of the night in what was supposed to be a clash of ideas, the real meaning was in the subtext. There’s an old Yiddish expression for this game of words where the truth is both more and less than what’s presented. Bullshit.

First, Dissent. To hear Leonard and Schenk talk about their slice of the Left you’d have thought it was already so powerful and scientifically certain in its premises, that it need only wait for inevitable demographic shifts and time to carry it to power. Sort of an incredible position to take when the nearest thing you have to a victory is a close loss in the nomination process. Sure the DSA has grown at an impressive clip post-election, but Bernie’s success notwithstanding it’s the Republicans who actually hold the political power right now.

Part of what put the right back in the White House was Trump’s ideological promiscuity. He couldn’t have cared less if he sometimes sounded indistinguishable from a Democrat and that attitude helped him win the election. Clearly the American Affairs team, proud populists, took that lesson to heart. Because it was the right wing debaters, the side actually in power in this country, continually reaching out for a recognition of common interests and getting snubbed by the Dissent editors.

A principled refusal to compromise is one thing, as when Leonard responded to a question from Schmitz about how far the Left could move towards someone like himself, an economically socialist anti-abortion conservative. She said it should be open to him as long as those views remained a matter of conscience and weren’t imposed on the party platform. That makes perfect sense to me—too much compromise is a mark of incoherence and venality. But the overall impression I got was that when it came to disagreements with “the right” there were only matters of principle, which made any compromise impossible and put even the appearance of agreement off limits.

“As someone who considers myself a leftist,” one audience member said during the Q&A, “I did feel sometimes a little bit uncomfortable with the only calls for building broad solidarity coming from the right.”

What the questioner was getting at I think, was Shenk and Leonard’s refusal to even acknowledge any conflict between identity politics and the formation of broad class-based coalitions. An especially notable omission given how commonly this issue comes up in intra-left debate.

At various points both Dissent editors dismissed concern over political correctness and campus radicalism as petty preoccupations of the right. This at the same moment, while “the Left turned on its own”  that videos of the Evergreen college protests were going viral. Broadcast—forget about just on cable TV—in millions of youtube clips that are played, refracted, remixed and replayed to a vast audience of Americans who are still, as Shenk rightly noted, deeply invested in the culture war.

There’s a common response to the concerns I’ve laid out. It argues that the Evergreen protests, rhetorical excesses aside, don’t have any real impact and that focusing on them only distracts from systemic forms of oppression. But this misses the point because if Shenk and I are right that the culture war is still raging, the power of these spectacles is in their propaganda value. A lot of people, potential leftists and people of color among them, don’t want to see racial polarization get worse in this country. Some recoil, others seethe, at the demonization of “Whiteness” and “Maleness” that’s become de rigeur at universities and in parts of the media. I’d wager that a lot of people who want to live together in a multiethnic democracy, just like Shenk spoke about, feel that some of what’s done in the name of anti-racism isn’t serving that cause.

It turns out that once you condone and normalize forms of collective guilt and racial original sin you can’t keep them from spreading. It doesn’t matter how many graduate seminars you hold, how many diversity consultants you hire, how many “dear white men” explainers you roll out. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t really mean it and you’re only denouncing those white cis males because it’s a form of social currency among your rich white friends. Once you start to traffic in blood myths you can’t keep them quarantined and they will poison your multiethnic democracy.

It’s the same game the liberal-left has played for years now, alternating between dismissing PC hysteria as just the kids acting out and defending attacks on free expression as a plank of revolutionary politics. They’ve effectively ceded any stake in civil liberties not just to bourgeois liberals like Jonathan Chait, but to right wing populists like Tucker Carlson. Some of what’s driving this—and now I’m talking about a general attitude on the left, not Shenk and Leonard specifically—is that it’s better to let “the right” claim values that are sacrosanct to millions of Americans, many Bernie supporters among them, than to be on the same side as Tucker Carlson.

Watch out if Carlson ever takes a public stand against kitten bludgeoning, it’s going to put some people in a very awkward position. 

(…Keep that hand-waving attitude in mind when we come a bit later to how American Affairs deals with the white nationalists of the alt right.)

It seems likely that Leonard and Shenk would disagree with a lot of  of what I’m saying but they know that this is something leftists are debating amongst themselves. To acknowledge that, though, would have risked exposing an overlap between their views and those to their right.

The Dissent folks had their moments. Leonard’s right that the conflation of working class with white working class, a staple of election coverage, is short-sighted and biased. Shenk’s certainly right that American Affairs suffers for its refusal to deal with Trump’s white identity politics. He goes further with that than I would, casting it as the determining factor in the election, but he’s right that it’s a significant force in the right’s new populism that needs to be confronted.
[correction: I got this wrong. Shenk does not characterize racism as the determining factor in the election and in his opening statement said, “of course, racism alone isn’t enough to win an election.” Here are his full opening remarks from the debate. Read his response to this piece here.

So much for the left.

Next up, Krein and Pappin take the stage looking nearly indistinguishable in plaid jackets and boyish side parts from a couple’a young Tucker Carlsons…and just as the crowd takes that image in they launch into an improvisation of Artaud. Krein douses the audience in pig’s blood, not a drop spilled on his penny loafers. Pappin, shotgun in hand, recites a formalist ode to the glory of the proletariat then he lights the poem on fire and takes aim at the crowd.

Ok, not quite that. But a performance.

Because if you took Krein and Pappin at their word you’d have to conclude that the principle concern of America’s new nationalist intellectuals is class solidarity and legal citizenship. What does that mean exactly, especially after they come out citing Baudrillard? I was there all night and I’m still not sure.

“To the American Affairs guys” one audience member asked, “you were using the word ‘working class solidarity’ and I’m really curious what you actually mean by that.”

To the questioner, the editors gave vague, airy answers. Krein mentioned ‘consciousness’ in his, evoking the Marxist idea of “class consciousness.” That might have been a coincidence but in context came off like another chance to show that they, the new populist right, were more anti-neoliberal and more materialist in their concerns than the lefties could ever imagine.

The real question for me was whether they meant something closer to Joel Kotkin’s concerns about income inequality corroding democracy or Marine Le Pen’s right-wing statist appeal to the working class with its fascist and racist overtones.

Krein and Pappin went out of their way to disassociate themselves not only from ethno and white nationalism but from anything resembling, as Schmitz puts it, “the chthonic forces of blood and soil.” No surprise then that Krein dismissed the alt right as something marginal and unimportant.

Which leaves the question, which I put to them at the debate: If not race or ethnicity or romantic nationalism, what is the force that will keep the civic and legal procedures undergirding this renewed nationalism from coming apart as happened not very long ago, to the last version of civic nationalism in this country?

What, I was asking, will hold the laws and procedures together? Laws and procedures, they answered.

So I was left, as were other people in the audience, with a sense that something was off. That some key missing element in their beliefs was either being suppressed or avoided. Because if you really believe that Baudrillard was onto something, as Pappin said, and as I’ve noted myself, then you’ve got to think that we’re in bad shape here, that there is a rot that goes deep.

The problem was that Krein and Pappin wanted to have it both ways. To present themselves as radical nationalists and then dodge the history of radical nationalism. Press them on the content of their radicalism and they retreated into the kind of anodyne prescriptions you could hear from any cog in the administrative state. It’s true  that they had reason to think the crowd was looking for signs of incipient fascism in anything they said but no one forced them to be there. If you’re trying to build a new politics to save the republic it’s not too much to ask that you show some candor in front of a polite, if hostile crowd, in a downtown Brooklyn loft.

Part of the appeal of American Affairs is the openness to new ideas, regardless of ideological provenance, and that is genuine and admirable. It’s not all flourishes either. You can see there’s depth to it when, in one example, Pappin cites the recently deceased leftist historian Judy Stein on the financialization of the economy.

But that openness also needs to be dealt with honestly. At one point Pappin suggested that if we’re not going to enforce the laws of the nation state seriously we ought to just abolish it. When the crowd cheered he asked, “when’s the last time you heard somebody on the right state that?” The answer is that I hear this sort of thing all the time from the alt right.

Here’s what I wrote last year in an essay for Tablet on the paleo conservative intellectual Paul Gottfried and the birth of the alt right:

French Nouvelle Droite philosophers and other European “identitarians” informed a new ideological style that embraced ethno-nationalism but rejected purity tests and drew openly from leftist writers like Antonio Gramsci.

And here’s something I wrote in January for Politico:

[The alt right] rejects the primacy of the free market, a cornerstone of right-wing politics in America over the past century. Instead, the alt-right favors blending conservative social policy with a strong welfare state, the same position taken by the National Front in France.

Pappin’s ‘hey who says we need the nation state’ casual interrogation of foundations, his disinterest in traditional political categories and familiarity with European critical theory are all qualities that align more with the alt right than with traditional American conservatives. The difference is that in the alt right it’s clear what holds their concept of politics together: racism, white identity, ethno-nationalism or some combination of the same.

Given all the premises they share, either the white nationalists of the alt right are American Affairs’ secret allies or they are the competition. Dismissing them as marginal figures and figments of the opposition’s imagination as the left does with its problematic radicals won’t make them go away. If it did they wouldn’t be here to begin with.

I said I wouldn’t impute motive but I’m now feeling like I’ve done a fair deal of it. I do have another insight into the motives of the American Affairs. A person close to the journal said, “part of what was going on was probably dancing around religion.” That’s certainly plausible, and an understandable apprehension given the presumed secularism of the crowd. But it doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s a cross up your sleeve or a knife, people see you hiding something up there they think you’re a sneak. That is not a feeling that attracts people to new ideas.

I had the chance to take a free class on J.S. Mills’ “On Liberty”  earlier this year taught by Norman Finkelstein at the Brooklyn Public Library. There’s a section we discussed that I think applies here on why it is never right to suppress a truly held belief:

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

If religion is the foundation for the new communitarianism the American Affairs editors alluded to, that would be important to know. If it’s federalism then they should say that and accept the risk of seeming less radical and closer to the old conservative establishment. It might not have won any immediate converts but it would have clarified the choices that confront us. Who knows what collisions would have gone off in people’s minds after they left the debate.

George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, had this to say in the Summer of ‘41.

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions—racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war—which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

Orwell was giving an explanation for why Britain’s progressives like H.G. Wells had missed the rise of Hitler. It was because they wrote him off as absurd, a ridiculous character with his little mustache, clueless about the affairs of the modern world. It was beneath people like Wells to worry about Hitler. They thought that only what they deemed important mattered. The world doesn’t run on seriousness. Donald Trump obviously isn’t Hitler but he isn’t exactly serious either.

Now, to wrap this up I better not be coy myself.

I don’t think the country can survive the way it’s going. That doesn’t mean it will fall apart tomorrow. But if society continues to balkanize—now with more street fighting—if the Federal government keeps expanding its power while failing at its most basic duties, as Amazon, Google and the like keep moving towards quasi omniscient information monopolies that add wealth at the top while shrinking jobs, wages and the middle class….well, I don’t know exactly, and I don’t counsel despair, but it doesn’t end well.

A politics that’s inclusive, multi-ethnic, pluralist, federalist, preserves universal healthcare, preserves the liberty of individuals and their right to make their own choices without trying to legislate cultural attitudes, that defends civil liberties, demands equality of opportunity, curbs and regulates speculative finance, recognizes that markets are not value neutral or sacrosanct and encourages economic policy to improve the material well being of Americans without returning to reactionary nativism or neo-mercantilism, that ends wars that can’t be won and doesn’t start new ones without a clear threat or national interest that can be expressed in terms of political outcomes and for which people above the rank of sergeant will be held accountable—I’d get behind all of that and I could care less what it’s called.

We need a modus vivendi in this country, not ultimate solutions. Whether we can get even that without more radical upheavals, I don’t know.

Michael Lind who crafted the ebb tide metaphor I started with is now an advisor to American Affairs and has the lead story in their new issue. In his essay on the future of American politics he wrote that the election only revealed what was already there, a reshaped coast hidden beneath the sea.

What forms the coastline? The waves that crash. The tide pulled by the moon. The plates shifting beneath the earth’s surface. Forces that we see and feel directly and others that we can’t. 

The world is being reshaped right now by a series of concurrent, concentric revolts in technology, politics, philosophy and metaphysics. Solving the political revolt may dampen the spark of the others, but if one really goes off it’s possible they all do.

Like I said, the stakes are high. So say what you mean.



Christopher Lasch’s, “What’s Wrong with the Right?” and “Why the Left has no Future.”

The point of this

The purpose of this website is to collect my work in one place and publish more frequently. I’ll use the blog to try out ideas for larger projects, post interesting scraps I had to cut from published work and writing that doesn’t fit elsewhere.

This also gives me at least a semblance of control over what the algorithms and data harvesters do with my name and likeness. You do a search for me and end up here where I present myself and my work to you as I’d like to be seen. That’s the idea.

Jacob Siegel